January 18, 2018

Charting a new course on the anniversary of Citizens United

Eight years ago next week, the Supreme Court issued what then-President Obama called “a major victory for big oil, Wall Street banks, health insurance companies, and the other powerful interests that marshal their power every day in Washington to drown out the voices of everyday Americans.”

That decision, of course, was the notorious case of Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission. The Supreme Court’s 2010 ruling is widely seen as having opened the floodgates for corporate money to pour into our elections with devastating impacts on public policy, our democracy, and people’s lives.

This is all too true. But Citizens United is just one major waypost on a long path corporations had already been charting to entrench their power and erode our democracy. That path continues today — but the movement challenging corporate power is stronger than ever.

Accelerating the corporate takeover of our democracy

In the late 19th century, robber barons at the helm of corporations like Standard Oil lobbied or outright bribed politicians to ensure they could continue making money while exploiting their workers and increasing wealth inequality. A series of Supreme Court rulings then further expanded corporations’ power over our democracy.

All the while, transnational corporations developed their playbook of tactics to devastate democracy in all sorts of ways — from the tobacco industry sowing doubt about the dangers of its products to block lifesaving public health policy to the fossil fuel industry funding front groups that peddle climate denial in the halls of Congress.

And Citizens United has turbocharged that political interference. In the years since the ruling:

  • The number of groups organized as super PACs — political action committees that have no limits on how much they can spend on election advocacy — has increased from 83 in the 2010 election cycle to a whopping 1,763 (and counting) in the 2018 election cycle.
  • Koch Industries and its political advocacy organization, Americans for Prosperity, have poured enormous sums of money into funding climate change doubters and unseating lawmakers who were in favor of passing meaningful climate change legislation.
  • The top 100 individual donors to federal candidates contribute significantly more money than they used to — and that translates into significantly more influence in policymaking. Case in point: In the lead-up to passage of the December 2017 tax scam bill, Rep. Chris Collins (R-NY) told the media, “My donors are basically saying, ‘Get it done or don’t ever call me again.’”
  • Congress is attempting to repeal or block enforcement of the Johnson Amendment, which prevents religious and other charitable organizations from directly contributing to candidates for elected office. This repeal attempt has been referred to as Citizens United 2.0 because it could create a new flood of unaccountable electoral spending.
The way forward for a people-powered future

It’s easy to get bogged down in all that Citizens United has unleashed. But it’s even more critical that we celebrate the victories for corporate accountability that people like you have made possible over the past eight years — and keep charging forward. Fierce grassroots organizing has been essential for safeguarding our democracy. In fact, 19 states and Washington D.C. have passed resolutions calling for a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United.

Right now, Congress and the White House are now proposing a federal budget filled with so-called “riders” — like the repeal of the Johnson Amendment — that would further benefit giant corporations at the expense of people. Corporate Accountability is part of the Clean Budget Coalition, a group of nearly 200 organizations calling on Congress and the White House to pass a clean budget with no harmful riders. We can stop the most harmful, anti-democratic measures from passing, but we need you with us.

Take action today. Together, we’ll rewrite this anniversary story and chart a new course toward a world where our democracy is thriving and corporations answer to people — not the other way around.

Photo credit: Guillaume Paumier, CC-BY

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